My plan for USATF: Track & field and TV need to get married

LOS ANGELES, May 2, 2012 – Back in 2001, columnist Nick Canepa of the San Diego Union-Tribune remembered his most electric moment in a lifetime of covering sports: Eamonn Coghlan’s 3:50.6 world-record indoor mile at the sold-out Jack in the Box Games from 1981.

He asked Coghlan about the decline in track’s popularity at that time and what the Irish star said then still rings true today:
“I had a marketing professor my first year at Villanova who said, ‘If you put a monkey on TV, you’ll make it famous,’ ” Coghlan recalls. “If one network here would take a chance with track, one night a week, it would help.”

It would do a lot more than help. In my mind, it’s the answer to what track & field athletes are asking USA Track & Field to do: create a structure that allows individual athletes to earn a reasonable living in their sport.

You can’t do that without money and even with sponsorship from Nike and Visa and significant grants from the U.S. Olympic Committee, it isn’t enough. The thirst for funding was at the center of the now-famous Athlete’s Advisory Committee meeting at the USATF National Convention in St. Louis last December.

So in my second round of interviews with the search firm conducting the CEO search for USATF last month, I outlined what I would bring to the position if selected. In truth, I had little hope of being selected, but my goal was to be able to bring this scenario to the Search Committee. I wasn’t able to do that, so I am sharing it here:

(1) This is the best time in history to be selling television rights to live sporting events. Recent national contracts signed with Major League Baseball, the National Football League and the Pac-12 Conference, and regional deals for baseball with the Texas Rangers, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim and soon, the Los Angeles Dodgers, show the value of television which is watched live and much less recorded and time-shifted than “reality” or scripted programming.

Fox is working on launching a new national sports channel to compete with ESPN, Time Warner Cable is creating two regional sports networks (one each in English and Spanish) to air Los Angeles Lakers (NBA) and Los Angeles Galaxy (MLS) games and the Comcast regional sports network group is looking at expansion. They all need content.

(2) Track & field has significant possibilities in this area, given its stars who will make an impression on the public – in the U.S. and abroad – at the 2012 Olympic Games in London.

(3) Track and television haven’t been married since the early 1970s, when the AAU and CBS put track & field on television weekly in the spring. That series led to what became the weekly CBS Sports Spectacular, which competed with ABC’s Wide World of Sports anthology program. It’s time for track to stop dating and get married again.

On this year’s “dating circuit,” NBC will show two meets prior to the Olympic Trials. The first will be 90 minutes of the Prefontaine Classic from Eugene on June 2, for which 30-second spots retail for $11,100 each. Keep that figure in mind.

(4) For a typical baseball game on a regional sports network, the air time – not including the pre-game and post-game shows – is three hours, with 50 commercial spots (30 seconds per) available for sale. Let’s round down the ad sales rate from the Pre Classic is $10,000 per spot and a three-hour track meet (imagine seeing a fast-paced, uninterrupted, four-round shot put!) would bring $500,000 to the broadcaster.

(5) With $500,000 ad-sales revenue possible per meet, a meet owner might be able to get $250,000 or a little more from a network, if it were interested to buy a series of meets to establish a standing feature such as Fox’s baseball “Saturday Game of the Week” or the standard NFL position of games on Sunday afternoons.

(6) Consider the lack of focused programming available on Sunday afternoons for the 30 weeks between the end of the Super Bowl in the first week of February and the start of the college football season on Labor Day Weekend . . . against only regular-season baseball and golf, there is an opportunity for a weekly track series in this window, properly structured to feature the sport’s great stars, with a compelling narrative. Track has historically enjoyed pretty strong ratings for a sport which is only shown occasionally, and hard to find when it is aired.

A series of 20 meets, each three hours long, could bring a U.S.-only rights fee of $5 million, used to put on the meets and pay the athletes who place in the top eight, in the same way that golf and tennis play-for-placement. Additional rights fees for a weekly attraction held at the same time each week – like the NFL – would have rights fee possibilities for Canada, Great Britain, Japan and elsewhere in Europe that might equal the U.S. sales total (which would then be a $10 million total). Out of the rights fee pool, there is also an opportunity to pay athletes “salaries” during the latter half of the series, but more on this below.

(7) The series would be split into two parts: prior to the U.S. Championships and after. The meets from February to early June would focus on individual events, creating a points table (based on placement) for each event. The leader in each event would secure a place on the U.S. “Team” that would compete in dual or triangular meets against other national and all-star teams after the U.S. championships. The winner of the U.S. championship meet (or second-placer if the winner is also the points leader) would join as the second member of the American team in each event.

(8) The dual or triangular meets would finally showcase “the world’s no. 1 track team” in actual competition as a team. Opponents could be individual countries such as Great Britain, China, Russia, Cuba, or an area all-star team such as from Africa, South America, the Caribbean and so on. The end of the season would be, of course, the World Championships, or could be a U.S. vs. World All-Star team for a “world” trophy similar to the old (and badly marketed) IAAF World Cup.

Notably, the members of the U.S. team would be paid a salary for their time on the U.S. team, along with travel, board and training facilities. As most of the Diamond League and World Challenge meets are on weekdays, time for competition in these other meets is possible, and some promoters will be willing to pay to bring in the U.S. “team” as a whole.

(9) To make this work, a pitch to a network requires the enthusiastic backing of sponsors Nike and Visa to buy some of the time up front, but also creates a content platform to attract other sponsors, who would have a specified, well-defined “season” to work with as they do in other sports. Moreover, any presentation to a network will have to include not only the agreement to participate, but the actual presence of stars like Allyson Felix, Shalane Flanagan, Carmelita Jeter, Adam Nelson, David Oliver, Jenn Suhr and others – in the room and part of the presentation – to demonstrate athlete commitment.

(10) The calendar of meets, format, payment and facilities to be used are important details that would need to be worked out with the new television partner(s). Additional revenue beyond the $5-10 million in television rights fees would come from sponsors, ticket sales and merchandising. Coordination of schedules between the USATF series and the IAAF would be needed, but can be resolved.

Naysayers will point to the small number of meets which top athletes participate in today, and the heavy logistical requirements. From my standpoint, having been a meet director for the world-class, nationally-televised Home Depot Invitational meets in 2003-04, I see no impediment to this plan except the willingness of track & field athletes to become true professionals. Remember the length of seasons in baseball (162 games), football (16), NBA basketball (82), the NHL (82) and even 34 in MLS; if you want to make a living in track, it isn’t too much to ask you to perform once per week at the most, but more likely an average once every other week.

There will also be those who say that such a program of meets would hurt U.S. medal production in the World Championships and Olympic Games. Over the short term, possibly, and worth it in my view to create a truly professionalized track & field program in the U.S. Over time, however, the cry will be for from foreign athletes who want the same opportunities . . . as clearly demonstrated by the domination of Kenyan and Ethiopian distance runners on the U.S. road circuit.

As outlined, this scenario speaks to the athletes, but the real goal is to re-format track & field as a spectator sport and create athlete funding by increasing its appeal to fans. It is not lost on the most recent sport to obtain large, national television contracts – NASCAR – that fans come first. They are, in the end, the source of all revenue.

These concepts are what I hoped to share with the USATF Search Committee, but never got the chance. Having spoken about this scenario with others, I have received plenty of encouragement, but just as many react like Luke Skywalker in “The Empire Strikes Back,” after Yoda raises his pupil’s X-wing fighter from the swamps of Dagobah:

Skywalker: I don’t believe it.

Yoda: That . . . is why you fail.

I’m with Yoda. May The Force be with you, Max Siegel.

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)

4 Comments

  1. You really should avoid attacking the athletes, the premise of your idea sounds great. Big money figures feel good. However, you’re idea does not require true professionalism as you opined, but rather an alternate universe.
    These athletes compete from January until September, if they do indoors, and at minimum from March through September. You spoke of minimal races, in what world? Between relays early on and the current circuit, we are talking upwards to 30 competitions.
    The marriage that is missing is not merely television, it is time those with dreams and ideas for the sport to stop thinking this is a bunch of people just wandering out to a track and running. You want to see a higher level of professionalism, as many so claim we need, then start speaking and treating the product as such. Trust me, talking down to the athletes is more of a problem than you think. The willingness to expand and grow is here, but we have to start having a healthier relationship internally. As it stands today, the athletes feel like cattle, and your writing exhibit this mentality.

  2. I pray NBC isn’t involved. They’ve made the Olympics unbelievably boring. I expect their track and field coverage will be great for Usain Bolt fans. And maybe Pastorius, if he makes it.

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